FORT WAYNE — Hundreds of Vietnam veterans turned out Saturday at Parkview Field for an official homecoming celebration, a belated event scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War.
The veterans who attended didn’t resemble the caricature of grizzled warriors but instead were older men with gray hair, many wearing shorts and T-shirts, the sort of men you would expect to see on the golf course on Saturday afternoon.
Ralph Garcia, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 698 and one of the organizers of the event, was pleased with the turnout and estimated attendance at 1,000.
Speakers, noting that Vietnam veterans were originally greeted with disrespect and disdain upon returning home, read proclamations, including from President Barack Obama, area mayors and public officials, marking the day as the homecoming day.
In the midst of tables promoting merchandise and benefits available to veterans was one table, with a white table cloth, an empty chair, a plate with salt and lemon, a rose with a red ribbon and an upside-down glass in memory of the 58,000 Americans who died during the war.
Vietnam, though an unpopular war, is a chapter in our history that we must never forget, one speaker said, adding that it is never too late to recognize the veterans for their service.
Addresses by some veterans, though, drove home the point that many veterans, upon returning home, tried to get back to a normal life as quickly as possible and didn’t talk about their experiences.
Lawrence “Tony” Howell recalled having a conversation only recently with his brother Kevin, a County Council member. “It was just a casual conversation, and he asked, ‘What did you do while you were in the service?’ ” Lawrence Howell said.
Howell said he asked himself, does he really need to know? But he told his brother, no, he didn’t spend three years in Germany like he’d told his entire family. He’d really spent that time in Laos.
“What was I doing walking around within 2 1/2 miles of China?” Howell asked. “I was a kid doing what he was told, calling in B-52 strikes.”
If you ask Vietnam veterans what they did in the war, Howell said: “If they flinch when you ask, just be quiet. Just listen. We have so much inside of us.”
The featured speaker, Phillip Wise, had a similar story. He was a sergeant on the first flight of what was known as Operation Babylift, which was ordered by President Gerald Ford to rescue Vietnamese orphans, many the children of American servicemen.
The first flight took place in a C5A Galaxy, a giant aircraft used to deliver heavy equipment such as tanks and artillery. Volunteers had loaded 248 children from a day old to 3 years old on the craft for a 20-hour flight to the United States.
It was the wrong choice of aircraft, Wise said. The plane wasn’t equipped to carry children. There wasn’t sufficient oxygen, and the cargo doors had a tendency to fly open.
That’s what happened to the plane Wise was on. The cargo gates flew open and tore off like so much paper while the plane was over the South China Sea, damaging the plane’s controls.
Without oxygen, the orphans and other passengers started passing out. The pilot tried to return the plane to Saigon, but it crashed a couple of miles short of the airport, killing more than 100 people, including dozens of orphans.
Wise survived the crash but was seriously injured.
Upon returning home, he shared no tales of his experience.
“My parents never knew what I went through,” Wise said. “I never told them. I never wore shorts or short-sleeve shirts” to hide scars that would cause people to ask where they came from.
It wasn’t until years later, when Wise was interviewed by a TV network for a story on the Operation Babylift crash, that his family learned about his real past.
On Saturday, though, it all changed. The veterans who were never welcomed decades ago were officially greeted with open arms.